Apparently, Stafford Betty’s God Still Isn’t Big Enough for Me

It is often claimed that atheists (and other heretics) reject the wrong sort of God. Theologians assert that God’s nature is far more mysterious than atheists recognize. True knowledge of God is far more hedged, tentative, and indirect than the dogmatists atheists are used to arguing with. If only atheists could be exposed to a much bigger and far more intellectually appealing deity then they would surely be able to believe.

Such arguments are not new. Nor is the form which such arguments take.

In 1709, William King authored a sermon entitled Divine Predestination and Foreknowledge, Consistent with the Freedom of Man’s will. King’s sermon was directed against heretic Pierre Bayle, who had apparently argued that several of God’s properties are incompatible with the world we inhabit. For example, God’s goodness was incompatible with a world containing human suffering (God could have chosen to create a world with less suffering but chose not to). God’s foreknowledge was incompatible with human free will, a necessary part of several theologies in which humans must freely choose to follow Jesus. In response, King argued that Bayle had misunderstood the nature of God. God’s goodness and his foreknowledge were nothing at all like human goodness and foreknowledge. Making the sort of conclusions which Bayle had reached were appropriate only for a caricature of the God King believed in. In the parlance of 21st century theologians, we can imagine King stating, “I don’t believe in that God either.”

King had noticed that the Bible attributes limbs to God, yet no one believes that God literally possesses limbs. As an immaterial, timeless, spaceless being, literal limb-talk is incompatible with God’s nature as King understood it. Instead, God possessed features merely analogous to limbs. Whatever we mean when we talk about God’s goodness should only resemble humanly goodness to the degree that God’s features resemble limbs.

Anthony Collins responded to King in a short pamphlet entitled Vindication of the Divine Attributes. Collins correctly pointed out that King’s view comes at too great of a cost for the Christian. If God possesses foreknowledge and goodness in the same sense that God possesses limbs, then God should not be said to possess foreknowledge and goodness at all. King’s sermon should be understood as a large concession to Bayle. Worse, since one could no longer prove anything about God, King’s view rendered Christianity and natural theology dead in the water.

I think that Collins’s response to Bayle is decisive against both (1) King and (2) many sophisticated theologians in the 21st century. (Although George Berkeley responds to Collins in 1732 with the statement that Collins’s God is yet another caricature, I spend a chapter of my master’s thesis showing that Collins’s argument can be modified to be decisive against Berkeley.)

Religious studies professor Stafford Betty posted an editorial in yesterday’s Huffington Post entitled A God for Atheists, yet another attempt to offer a deity “big enough” for atheists. In the remainder of this post, I will show that Betty’s article fails to establish a theism which would rationally appeal to atheists. I will additionally show that Betty’s conception fails for much the same reason as King’s.

First, what is Betty’s argument? Betty begins by establishing that there are a number of problems with popular, lay theism. He thinks that a number of features of that view are absurd:

  1. That God would condemn “non-Christians to hell”.
  2. That God would create “the universe a few thousand years ago by merely wishing into existence out of nothing”;
  3. That one should pray for things that one personally desires;
  4. That the things which happen to us are “supposed to happen”;
  5. That God inspired a particular holy book;

He further identifies that:

  1. theologies with problems (1)-(5) do not comport with the standards expected in academic work. They fly in the face of “reason and evidence”.
  2. Nor do such theologies “square with the human experience”.

Notice that these problems are similar to the ones which King had identified in Bayle’s arguments. In our examination of the Bayle/King exchange, we saw that Bayle had argued that the world we live in is incompatible with the God Christians profess belief in. King responded that Bayle’s view of God’s properties was naïve. Similarly, Betty claims that the atheism he sees exhibited in his students and colleagues is a response to a variety of theism which does not comport with the world as we experience it.

Betty’s thesis is that because there are a number of alternative theisms, the atheist does not have to reject God. He claims that the “best [alternative theism involves] a God whose nature doesn’t contradict reality as we know it – a God that doesn’t trip up when placed alongside the physics of the universe, or the suffering of little children, or the scoffing of brilliant minds in high places”. He spends the rest of the piece arguing for the view that it is at least rational to believe in such a being.

Betty asserts, without argumentation, that such a being would be “personal”. It is not clear to me what he actually means by that, but he contrasts a personal God against a personal human. A personal human would have a nature “categorizable by a Myers-Briggs personality test” and “how [they] treat a waitress”. Such tests or categorizations would not be applicable to a personal God. Instead, such a being would have a property I will call ‘Q’: “a unique intellectual and emotional structure infinitely beyond ours”. He makes several claims for such a being: (a) that it knows us, (b) values us, (c) loves us infinitely as it’s “creations”, (d) “ensouls us”, (e) has a relationship towards us somehow analogous to that between a parent and child, (f) “forgives us when we fall short”, (g) “preserves us beyond death”, and (h) keeps the “soul-making adventure going” (whatever that means).

Parallel with Collins’s reply to King, we have the following sort of question. Can we infer from Q to (a)-(h)? On the one hand, it is vague as to what sort of property Q is; what does an “intellectual and emotional structure” amount to? At the very least, Betty tell us that God’s structure is “unique” and “infinitely beyond ours” – we should infer from these two contextual clues that humans possess such a structure, but that God’s is not only different (unique) but infinitely different. We cannot assess God’s Q-ness in the same way that we assess the “intellectual and emotional structure[s]” of humans (surely that’s what Betty means with his comment concerning the Myers-Briggs test and the waitress). That shouldn’t be entirely surprising, since it follows straightforwardly from the claim that God is both unique and infinitely different.

But how then can we infer that God loves us as his creations? Humans might love their creations, but the relationship between God and his creations should be unique and infinitely different. Similarly for all of (a)-(h): God’s infinite Otherness forbids us from concluding (a)-(h) from Q. Betty’s attempt to shield God from objections has come at too high a cost.

Furthermore, note that this ambiguity concerning God reintroduces problems (6) and (7).

Problem (6) – that God does not comport with “reason and evidence” – is reintroduced because we have no way to show evidence for Betty’s God. In order to provide evidence for x, we need to know something about what sort of effects x would have in the world. For example, in order to justify through evidence that God created the world, we would need to know what sort of world God would make. But we cannot say what a unique being, infinitely different from anything in our experience, would make. Betty briefly considers whether or not evidence supports the existence of his God, but appears to concede that the evidence is not decisive one way or another on this issue: “Did the universe evolve on its own like a giant tree in a forest, or was it ‘planted,’ like a seedling in an orchard? There is no way to know. There is no way even to set the odds.”

Problem (7) is reintroduced because such a being could not possibly be further away from our experience of the world. Not only have I never experienced a mind without a body, but I have no idea what such a mind would be like if it were both unlike anything I’d ever experienced (unique) and infinitely beyond my comprehension.

Betty goes on to consider the problem of suffering:

Imagine living on a planet where everything came easily; we would all end up like spoiled children; we would never cultivate virtues like compassion, generosity, prudence, courage and resolve. The philosopher John Hick concluded that for these to develop, the world “must present real dangers, difficulties, problems, obstacles and possibilities of pain, failure, sorrow, frustration and defeat.” There is no other way. Would we want any less for our children? Then why should God?

This response suffers from at least three objections.

First, as I already explained, Betty has no reason to think that his God would want the things for his creation that parents want for their children. That would violate the two claims at the heart of Betty’s “sophisticated” conception of God (uniqueness and infinite Otherness).

Second, Hick’s view, at least as Betty presents it, is woefully unimaginative. An infinitely powerful being had no other way that they could have created the universe? It seems outrageous to say that there is no other way the universe could be which would involve less suffering yet still allow humans to cultivate virtues. Betty rejects naïve popular theologies because they suffer from absurdities like (1)-(5). I fail to see how this theodicy is any less absurd.

Third, Betty seems to have misunderstood the dialectical challenge of the problem of suffering. We can imagine an intelligent design proponent who claims that the existence of God can be inferred from the appearance of the universe (e.g., the universe we see is the one we would predict God to create). An atheist interlocutor then objects that the level of unexplainable egregious suffering in the world contradicts the predictions made by the intelligent design proponent; the universe looks very different from the sort we would expect God to make. At best, Betty’s response to the problem of suffering establishes that regardless of how much suffering we see in the world, it is logically consistent with theism. It does not establish that we should infer theism. To the contrary, it renders the theistic hypothesis moot; an unfalsifiable hypothesis is one that should be rejected.

Betty seems to have assumed throughout his piece that if theism and atheism can be shown to be equally rational, theism should be preferred. This may explain why he is comfortable ignoring the burden to argue for God’s existence. Instead he argues that theism is logically consistent with our observations of the world (not that it follows from those observations) and with quasi-poetic statements to the effect that it would be wonderful if only it were true. Perhaps this is because, as he reveals in his conclusion, he went through a period of non-belief, found it miserable, and eventually made his way to a theism which he could feel intellectually satisfied with.

I’m not privy to the idiosyncrasies of Betty’s psychology nor would I speculate concerning his biographical details. What I can say is that there is no universally applicable reason why theism should always be preferred, when it is logically available, to atheism. I can also say that I am far from convinced Betty’s article accomplished his desired goals or that Betty understands the reasons most atheists give for their non-belief.


  • March 1, 2014 - 9:54 pm | Permalink

    It seems really condescending of him to assume that atheists spend their time agonizing over how they wish they could be theists.

    • Dan Linford
      March 2, 2014 - 12:26 am | Permalink

      I agree! But I’ve seen this comment repeated in plenty of places.

  • March 3, 2014 - 10:40 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this response! I was paralyzed by indignation after reading Stafford Betty’s article and your unraveling of his points has cured me. Well done and thank you once again.

    • Dan Linford
      March 3, 2014 - 11:23 pm | Permalink

      No problem! It was a pleasure to write.

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